Thursday, December 10, 2015

I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants

When I started this blog, I didn't intend to spend much time looking backwards at myself. I didn't think that appealed to me, with so much happening so fast right now, like the twins growing into little people before our eyes. Plus its not always easy looking at your younger self. Like Patti Smith said, "I haven't fucked much with the past, but I've fucked plenty with the future." But then last time in this space, I wrote a little about my bookstore days and briefly mentioned the catering job I took after that. That opened the door to revisit that time in my life so I tentatively followed the trail of memories a while longer. I thought back to what I was doing then; who I was. Keep in mind I hadn't thought much about most of this in a very long time, so I suppose what I'm recounting might be slightly altered from what really happened, due to time playing tricks with my memory. But in thinking about some of this stuff for the first time in ages, I was pleasantly surprised to see my younger self in ways I wasn't able to understand at the time. I wasn't as messed up as I thought I was, really, I was just growing up, like everyone else.

I'd decided not to return to the bookstore because a friend of mine was able to secure me a job at a catering house for the summer. I'd work long hours but make good money, much more than I could have made at the bookstore. After one night as a dishwasher, I was "promoted" to cater waiter. I had skills, clearly. Or they needed the help and I was a warm body with a brain in his head.

That summer between my sophomore and junior years of college was the closest I'd come to, at that point, of having a summer that resembled the ones in movies that my friends and I loved, like Dazed and Confused. I would work ten, twelve, or fourteen hour shifts at the catering gig, which was basically like partying all day because even though the work was honest and exhausting, the catering world was simply full of the craziest collection of nonconformists, delinquents, oddballs, and lovable losers I'd ever met. A perfect mix of college kids and catering biz pros. Working with them was always entertaining. When I wasn't working I was hanging out with my two best friends at the time, along with a rotating cast of other friends and acquaintances, some of whom I'd never see again after that summer. We'd meet up after work, no matter the hour, then head to someone's house or a party; there always seemed to be something happening somewhere. Some nights we just chilled and rented movies, or caught one at the theater—Heat being the film that blew our minds that summer. On off days from work we'd meet up on the basketball court and play for hours. Those were the best days, because after hoops we'd either head home to change and then make our way to the next party or on quieter nights gather to watch the NBA Playoffs. I spent several summers with those two good friends, then after college graduation we went our separate ways, with only two of us really keeping in touch, but only sporadically, and now mostly just through short bursts of text conversations, maybe once or twice a year, which is sad. But I still love them like brothers for what those times meant. It's strange how we share so many experiences with people at that age, and more often than not we simply find ourselves on diverging paths that rarely cross later. 

I started seeing someone that summer, a friend I'd known briefly a few years earlier. We liked each other then, but it never went anywhere. So, by our way of thinking, reconnecting at the start of the summer was clearly an act of serendipity (just typing this now makes me laugh out loud, but the drama of youth knows no subtlety). We never thought we'd run into each other again, so this was a second chance to see if we really were more than friends, and we'd have the summer to find out. So we hung out. Sometimes she'd tag along to whatever our slacker group was doing after work. And we talked on the phone. A lot. That's what you did back then. I vaguely remember one night, the two of us sitting on the hood of the car under a light in an empty parking lot, talking about life and not feeling old enough to have any control over it, but both of us wanting to change things about ourselves, somehow. Your standard frustrated youth stuff, really. Looking back on it now, I think we provided support for each another, more than anything. We both needed someone to lean on that summer, someone to talk to and to share adventures with, just someone we could each count on for a while. Getting out into the summer air was also all we really needed; that was our bond during those months. Which is probably why we didn't last long after summer was over. That and the fact that the real us couldn't compete with the idealized versions we had in our heads when summer started. We didn't end badly. We just sort of ended. When you're that age, some things aren't meant to last beyond summer. 

So when I think of those summers (let's say the range is boyhood up through my early to mid twenties), I tend to remember them all pretty positively overall, even though at the time I was too wrapped up in the immediacy of it all (things seem to move so rapidly at that age) to always realize things were really good. I know those summers also had their pedestrian moments, but mostly just the highlights remain in my memory, a memory that grows more faulty with each passing year. And of course the enemy of reason, nostalgia, plays a part in all of this. Those various summer moments really do play in my memory banks like scenes from a film or a novel. I think that's because only in youth are we so free of responsibility that we have the luxury to see our life as an epic summer coming-of-age story, starring us and everyone else in our orbit. It's a special kind of conceitedness only found in youth. And I think that's why those memories remain as scenes from a movie in our minds, all these years later.

The following are a few of the scenes from that summer, as I can still see them today, barely, through the fog of too many years gone by. Maybe someday I'll share memories from the summers that followed, like when I pined long distance for the love of my life: my future wife. But looking back can be challenging and draining. I might need to recharge before attempting this again. Stay tuned.


Like the kids in Dazed and Confused making Aerosmith tickets "the top priority of the summer," we had our own mid-'90s version of the concert quest. For us it was two shows: the HORDE Tour featuring dozens of bands, and Tom Petty on the Wildflowers tour. We never did get tickets to HORDE, so we had to sneak in. I can still see us, my friends and I, climbing up a foot bridge into the outdoor venue. Our last friend is caught with one leg over the bridge by security (so close!) and told to climb back down. The rest of us are left on the bridge looking down at him, feeling guilty and unsure of what to do, when someone behind us tosses an extra ticket over the bridge and it lands near our friend down below. We shout "There's an extra ticket!! Get it!!" And he dives into the scrum with several other kids. Soon after, he raises his hand out of the pile, ticket held aloft. Triumphant! Minutes later he's through the turnstiles and we all embrace like long-lost brothers. 

Driving home from the show, still charged from a day and night full of music, Pearl Jam's "Better Man" comes on the radio. Quietly at first, my friend who's driving starts singing along. Then I join him and I am not a singer but I'm compelled. Then our friend in the back joins in too. As the song builds and gets louder, so do we. When it's over we just smile at the spontaneity of the moment, no words need to be spoken. 

Driving, again, this time in someone's Jeep and away from the basketball courts towards something happening somewhere in the night. Better Than Ezra's "Good" is blasting on the radio and all of us crammed into the Jeep are singing along with the wind in our hair (so cliche, but true). 

While packing up from one of the too-many-to-count weddings we catered that summer wedding season, this one off-premise at a lake house, we realize a catering manager's car is stuck in the mud. She gets in the car and a bunch of us dig our feet into the mud pushing against the hood while she slams it into reverse, tires spinning, mud flinging. One of the waiters pushing to my right, realizing this is a black Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, starts talking in perfect imitation of KITT from Knight Rider: "Michael, I'm stuck, Michael. Help me, Michael. Please." The laughter makes it really difficult for us to get the car unstuck, but we eventually manage. 

Seeing Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kill it, song after song. Twenty-five thousand people outside in the open air singing along (there was a lot of singing that summer, huh?) to "You Wreck Me" word for word, shouting extra loud with Petty during the lyrics "I'll be the boy in the corduroy pants/You be the girl at the high school dance." (We bought tickets to this one; no sneaking in necessary)

In the head bartender's car, listening to rock radio while driving back from another far-flung off-premise event (I should have named this post "Music and Cars"). The bartender must be twenty to twenty-five years older than the two college kids he's driving back. We both express surprise at his killer taste in music. Our expressions of amazement at his being cooler than we'd thought go on for while before he finally says, emphatically but with a smile on his face, "I have a pulse, guys! Jesus, I'm not dead yet!" Life lesson learned for two young punks: aging doesn't have to equal fossilization.

This one starts badly but ends well. I want to crawl into a hole and die one night while working an on-site wedding reception after the owner of the catering company decides to make an example of me in front of the guests at the table by grabbing the water pitcher away from me and demonstrating, loudly, how I should be pouring the water faster. Trust me, it's as absurd as it sounds. And this is really the only interaction I had with him all summer. He's a tyrant and I'm a fragile kid who prefers to avoid alpha-males anyway, so this is the last thing I need. One of the catering managers sees it happen and takes me aside to tell me it was nothing I did, that he's in a mood, and to just put it behind me because I'm doing fine. I'm grateful to her for the words because she doesn't have to do that for a summer cater waiter she'll likely never see again after August.

Hanging out one night with the group, with no plans beyond hitting the grocery store for some food, then crashing at someone's house to consume it all. We wander leisurely through the store, picking up food seemingly at random, finding it all amusing. To think, soon after this time, trips to the store for food would become complete drudgery, time spent rushing through, just throwing things in the cart so you can move on to the next item on the checklist of life that needs your attention. When you're young, you really do know how to live in the moment.

We're catering a senior prom and I'm struck by how far in my rear view mirror high school seems—and I'm only two years removed from it at this point! But the distance between who I was then and who I'm becoming is enormous. And this unnerves me a little bit, but mostly I'm just happy to be moving on, building towards something—even if I have no idea what that "something" is yet.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Tales from the Bookstore: Holiday Edition

While sifting through my books recently, and because it's the most wonderful time of year (please read that with the dripping sarcasm with which it was intended) I was reminded of my time working at a bookstore, during my college years. It was a Waldenbooks—remember those, kids? A dinosaur, now extinct, Waldenbooks was the bookstore of choice for most Americans in the 1980s and into the early to mid 1990s, with one located in nearly every decently populated town across the country. Most were in malls, like the one where I worked. At some point in the '90s, the superstores, and then Amazon, began dominating the market, and eventually the chain was liquidated. Wikipedia tells me it was in 2011, which blows my mind! I thought for sure they'd disappeared completely somewhere around 10-15 years ago. But my time at Waldenbooks in the 90s was during their heyday, when mall shoppers flocked there like a politician to a campaign fundraiser.

I spent countless hours working in one of these, trying not to get caught reading books in the science fiction section during my shifts.
The holiday season always reminds me of working at Waldenbooks because, and I kid you not, those weeks between Black Friday and Christmas were the most insane work experiences of my time there, and maybe of any job I've had since—scratch that, I worked in catering one summer and that has to take the cake (a future post will be needed to expound on that). People lose their minds during holiday shopping season. Even normally reasonable people devolve into the ape from the "dawn of man" scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey and we the booksellers are the frail bones being bashed to bits. It's a lawless time of year in the wilds of the mall, when everyone fights to snag as much product (sorry, "gifts") as they can find in stores while trampling any living soul who dares get in their way. We were absolutely slammed during the holidays, and that alone made for a stressful day at work, but add to that the constant stream of insults being hurled at us by festive holiday shoppers, and then you have a recipe for disaster. That's when the staff at my particular Waldenbooks started to find ways to make our own fun, to get through the holidays in one piece. Like most retail teams, we were a motley crew, made up of college kids like me, a stray high schooler or two, young mothers trying to balance work with parenthood, and bookstore lifers who started working there with the intention of it being a stop along the way only to find themselves still there, still selling books, too many years later. Our assistant manager was a riot. He had an urban planning degree and clearly wasn't thrilled with not being able to find a job in his field, so his years in the mall bookstore trenches had sharpened his sarcasm to the point where it could cut a man in half, I saw him do it once. He was the master of the snarky remark, the quick under-his-breath dig, timed perfectly to elicit maximum laughter from me every time. Usually he saved these for the moments when customers were the most rude and obnoxious. I'm sure when I burst out laughing at the counter after one of his remarks, customers must have been wondering "What the hell is this stupid kid giggling at? And is this on sale or not?!?"

It Came From The Mall, or, any Black Friday anywhere, ever.

This was how we got ourselves through the holiday rush at the store. Were we immature? Of course we were! We were all in our teens or twenties and it was the late 20th century after all, so arrested development was de rigueur (still is, I hear). I think the oldest employees were likely in their late twenties, which at the time seemed so old and now seems so damn young. While their ages might have seemed so far off in the future for me at that time (what young kid doesn't think he'll never be that old?), their skewed approach to the ludicrousness of life—straight out of the John Cusack school of sardonic hard knocks, which was all the rage back then, kids—was a revelation to me. Here were adults—people who didn't live with their parents during school breaks!—seeing life for what it was (insane!) and finding some solace in the insanity by mocking it mercilessly. They, ladies and gentlemen, were some of my first real-life examples of a new way to be an adult. Their sideways perspectives on life dovetailed perfectly with my own, which showed me that I too could remain a misanthrope well into adulthood! Hooray! It wasn't just a childish stance to take, it was aspirational!

It's at this time that we take a break from the bookstore action to reflect on whether or not this particular life lesson was indeed the best one for young Michael to learn. Has it lead to a worldview that can be most generously described as optimistically pessimistic? Affirmative. Does that mean I don't always enjoy things with the same verve and naivety that I did before my teen years, when the misanthropy first got it's claws in me? Sure, that's fair. But only sometimes. And this is a big "but"—I do still enjoy things with just as much passion and enthusiasm as ever, even if sometimes it's tempered with cautious optimism. So, to sum up, I think we can say with righteous certainty that yes, indeed, this life lesson was worthy of absorbing. And thank you, fellow Waldenbooks employees, for imparting your wisdom on young me.

I hope what you're getting out of this is that we were being extremely childish in order to make dealing with insistently yammering and complaining customers just a tad bit more tolerable. But sometimes you need to be childish. Children are known for having  fun, aren't they?? And children love the holidays! Adults could stand to be more childish. And we were never rude, unless a customer really crossed a line, but even then it wasn't being rude, it was just being realistic. Also, I've made it sound like we had nothing but nomadic Huns rampaging through our store. That's obviously not true. Plenty of customers were sweet and unassuming. But the vocal minority of holiday shoppers made the largest impression on us. Mostly because of the dichotomy: here it is, the most wonderful time of year, and people are literally fighting over the last copy of the hot Christmas gift book. One shopper has one end of the book, the other shopper has the other end, and they are tugging it back and forth in what I can only describe as an unhinged game of tug-of-war. If I recall correctly, we stood behind the counter, mouths agape, watching silently because words failed us, until finally one shopper emerged victorious. You can't help but start to see the holidays as just the slightest bit absurd at that point. Happy @%#&ing holidays!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Not rid of her

There are so many musicians and bands that I've listened to obsessively for years, or even decades in some cases. The list is long, but the usual suspects at the top of that list include Lou Reed and/or the Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Marvin Gaye, the Pretenders, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Neko Case, Cat Power, the Who, the Faces, Dusty Springfield, Iggy Pop, the New York Dolls, Tom Petty, Cheap Trick, and on and on. These are just a few of the musicians whose music I return to again and again. Sometimes years go by between deep dives into their catalogs, but I always return to them. And while the way I listen to their music has changed—from physical albums back in the day, to iTunes in the early aughts, to simply streaming their stuff whenever I want now (because it's all out there, for public consumption—thank you, interwebs), I can still go down the rabbit hole and get lost in amazing aural soundscapes that still thrill me the same way they did years ago. But I've noticed for years now that the one artist I keep coming back to, religiously, more than any other, is Polly Jean Harvey. I have her entire discography and they are some of the only CDs I still cart back and forth to my car to blast on the way to and from work. And I find myself streaming her songs all the time, too. There have even been times over the last handful of years where I've listened to nothing else except her music, for weeks on end. After doing this enough over the years, I realized how much I rely on her music to get me through things. Her music hits all the right notes for me, both emotionally and intellectually.

PJ Harvey, the band, released their first album in 1991. I know it's cliche, but their first two albums, Dry and Rid of Me, really did explode on the scene at the time. They brought the "power" in "power trio"—their sound was so loud, so raw, so stark, that it was simultaneously frightening and euphoric. They updated the dirty blues and gutter punk sounds of previous decades into something for '90s kids like me. They sounded classic yet also completely contemporary, all at the same time. They were a band, but Polly Jean was the driving force, clearly. Her lyrics, guitar playing, and voice combined to form a tsunami of sound that was unlike anything else out there at the time. This wasn't about technical musicianship, it was about pure, brute force conveyed through amps turned to 11 and a vocalist who sounded like both an angel and a banshee.

From there, Harvey chose to record as a solo performer but kept working with great musicians and her sound continually evolved with every record. She's rarely ever done the same thing twice, with each record being its own distinct statement, yet the entirety of her catalog still works beautifully together—while her styles and sounds might morph from album to album, she is the through-line between all of it, the link that ties it all together. Whenever she creates a new sound, the core of the music is still that idiosyncratic personality that Harvey brings to every song she writes. Her music is always changing, yet always clearly the work of the artist Polly Jean Harvey. People talk about Bowie and Neil Young being chameleons; they're probably the two biggest mainstream examples of this. But for my money, Polly Jean out-chameleons either of them. She definitely shares something in common with Bowie and Young, in that she doesn't seem to care one bit what anyone thinks of where she goes next musically. She's truly, fiercely, independent in her music-making. I think that's the best kind of musician to follow, really. I want to go on a journey with musicians like that, to let them lead me into new areas while they still retain the elements that made me obsess over them in the first place.

We saw PJ Harvey open for U2 in 2000, when she was touring around her most commercially successful album, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. This was well past the dying days of my U2 fandom—as a child of the '80s they were one of the first big rock bands I ever knew or liked. Every kid liked them in 1987. By 2000 though, I was listening to them less than ever, but the chance to see them was too much to pass up. Obviously, the big draw for me was the chance to—finally!—see Polly Jean perform. I'd been into her for a while. Her then-new record was easily my favorite album of that year and I played it constantly and recommended it to anyone who would listen (sorry to some of my friends who listened patiently). Once we saw her that night, my Polly Jean fandom went from strong to full-blown. She was electric that night in concert, even though we saw her in a half-filled arena (you know, people always skip the opener), far from the stage. I alternated between watching the larger, projected version of her on the jumbo screen and the tinier, actual version that was across the arena from me. Both were equally magnetic. She tore through her set, playing almost every song I wanted to hear that night. She used to tour a lot in the years leading up to and for a few years after we saw her, but it was still rare to be able to see her here in the states. So that show is easily a live music highlight of mine. Oh, and U2 were pretty good that night, too. Just not in the same league as Polly Jean, in my humble opinion.

In the car recently, we heard Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks," followed by Harvey's "Down by the Water" I'd never thought of it before, but it seemed so obvious after hearing the two songs together: Harvey's music fits perfectly with Zeppelin's heaviest stuff. She's always seemed too edgy and prototypical punk to have much in common with Zeppelin's bloated brand of classic rock (which, let's be clear, I love), but it was obvious how these songs shared something primal, something fierce, something heavy. Harvey's music hits with the same kind of pure force and raw power that Zeppelin and bands like the Stooges did in their best moments. Even her quiet songs are devastating because of her utterly indomitable force of will. You can't be a passive listener to PJ Harvey's music. So in that car ride, after "Down by the Water" finished, I was really hoping the next song played would be the Stooges' "Down on the Street," Now that would have been a killer trifecta. That didn't happen, but I can spin them in succession on YouTube someday to get the full effect. Hearing Polly Jean's music served up right after a slab of '70s hard-rock-updating-of-classic-blues was a revelation. It gave me an entirely new appreciation for her music, even after being a fan for more than twenty years at this point. That's the thing about Polly Jean. She's always presenting a new side to herself, one that only enhances and deepens this fan's affection for her music. I'm along for the journey, for the long haul.

A video shortlist of a couple of my favorite PJ Harvey songs (far from complete):


"Rid of Me"

Three for the price of one here with "O Stella - Dress - Hair"

And some kind YouTube user with great taste in music has uploaded PJ's entire set, live at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival. It's killer, trust me. If the opening version of "Meet Ze Monsta" doesn't blow your mind, I'm worried for you.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Moving past blame

As I've written about previously, I'm a fan of Chrissie Hynde's music, particularly the early Pretenders albums that were a huge influence on me. I won't repeat it all here, but her lyrics, which were both intimate and yet broad in scope, both thoughtful and abrasive in tone, really affected me. She and Patti Smith, Kurt Vonnegut, and Joan Didion, to name just a few whose work I've lived with over the years, all share an honesty in their writing that lays bare how they feel about something in no uncertain terms. I've spent most of my adult life attempting to express my own opinions and feelings with that level of clarity. That's what this blog is partly about. So, Hynde is in the Personal Influence Hall of Fame, for sure. Her photo even sits atop this page—mostly because I happened to discover that totally awesome vintage shot by Ebet Roberts right around the time I was starting this blog. But also because it's Hynde, and thus super cool. She's sort of the blog's patron saint, I suppose.

So when I heard she had a biography coming out this fall—her first—I was excited to read it. Or at least add it to the list to be read at some point. It focuses on her childhood all the way up through the early years of the band. Perfect. But then she started giving interviews to promote the book and started a bit of a controversy with some troublesome comments about sexual assault. In the book, Hynde reveals that she was raped when she 21 years old. You can find the interview excerpts all over the internet, but this is the main pull quote from it:
“Technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was all my doing and I take full responsibility.”
She included some more of what I'd have to call victim blaming in the longer quote. Ugh. Not so super cool. Of course I found this disappointing. Over the years, I've heard enough comments from people I respect (including people I actually know) that have made me question whether I should still respect them after all. This was different though. It hasn't made me rethink my interest in Hynde's work or reassess how important it is to me. Instead, it made me think about the issue she was discussing and how pervasive—and corrosive—certain outdated societal norms can be. I started thinking about her age and when this happened to her. And back in the 1970s, victim blaming was most definitely the prevailing attitude. Women were victimized twice—first by the assault and then by their community of friends, family, and law enforcement, who often blamed them for the crime. And while we like to think this level of victim blaming has largely disappeared, that's just not true. Plenty of people still engage in it, and plenty of institutions, by their very lack of oversight and prosecution in college campus rape cases, for example, continue to either directly or indirectly reinforce that sexual assault is not to be treated in the same manner as other violent crimes. Sexual assault still seems to be the one crime where the victim is made to feel worse than the perpetrator of the crime. It's reprehensible.

And it's in this kind of society that Hynde came of age. She was raised in an era before mine where women were mostly supposed to be seen and not heard. Which is partly why she was always such an inspiration to so many—she broke through that wall of male egos to make her own sound, to speak her own mind. So it's bound to make a fan a bit heartbroken to hear her say something so, well, out of touch. But then I remember that, 40+ years ago, she was the victim. In fact, she is still the victim in some ways, as a crime like that will affect her for the entirety of her life. So I'm not going to heap more blame on a victim. I'm sorrowful that this happened to her. I'm saddened that she hasn't been able to get help to see past blaming herself. And I'm angry at a world that conditioned her to blame herself. Because she was not at fault. I hope someone in her life can tell her that now. She deserves to hear that.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Bye, Jon

Last night was the final episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The show will continue on with a new host, but Stewart's moved on after almost seventeen years. I didn't watch it last night--I'm old, we have kids, and I cherish my sleep too much now for those reasons and several others--but I did DVR it and I'll watch it later. I used to watch the show every day, but, as with Letterman earlier this year, by the time Stewart's run was coming to an end I'd long since stopped watching faithfully. And, also like with Letterman, it had nothing to do with the host or the show, per se, it was mostly all about how life changes and I found myself less likely to stay up to watch something that I could sample bits of online the next day. The must-see aspect of these daily late night shows started to diminish for me--and a lot of people my age and younger, I'd wager--in the last decade when it all started becoming available for viewing and dissecting in easily digestible clips the morning after the episodes aired. So, times change, and we change with them.

That said, I've been a fan of Jon Stewart as a comedian and a host and an interviewer and a pop culture personality for a very long time. It predates the Daily Show gig. He hosted a show on MTV during my college years, back when the Alternative Nation ruled the world, remember? He was part of that slacker era, even though people rarely remember that now. He used to have all of my favorite bands on his show, and it was clear that Stewart was a big fan of those bands too. I felt a connection to him back then that's mostly lasted. Plus, like Michael Keaton or John Cusack or countless other early icons of mine, he seemed to share my sensibilities and, whether consciously or not, I was heavily influenced by these guys. I always ask myself, am I similar in personality and humor and outlook to these guys because they influenced who I became? Or was I attracted to their styles because I was already like them anyway? I think it's a bit of both, but I know for certain that I wouldn't be the way I am (equal parts acerbic, genuine, sarcastic, honest, skeptical, passionate, cutting, heartfelt, etc.) without having grown up on a steady diet of watching guys like Stewart, Cusack, Keaton, Letterman, etc.

It was that genuine, heartfelt approach to the world on The Daily Show that always moved me the most. He used sarcasm and cynicism to cut through the bullshit because we're living in a world that's nothing but bullshit so much of the time, and sometimes the most effective way to make a point through all of the noise is to simply expose how absurd all of this is. He did it masterfully. On a consistent basis for a very long time. That's an accomplishment in itself. But my favorite thing about him will always be that we could see how much he felt things, how upset he got over social or political injustices, or how excited his inner fanboy became when talking about things that meant the world to him. That's why I always related to him. He was looking at the world from a skewed angle, like all the best comedians and cultural commentators do. And from that angle, he saw how things could be, and he spoke to that for each and every one of us that felt that way but didn't have a voice on a larger stage like he did. The show wasn't perfect, by any means. I always found him to be the best part of the show--the bits with correspondents grated on me over the years, but the impassioned monologues he delivered and the in-studio interviews he conducted were always the most memorable moments to me. That's why I think the pop culture world will be a little less insightful with him moving on.

I spoke to Stewart once a few years ago, briefly, at Schnipper's, I think it was the one on 8th Avenue. Now, I'm fond of saying that we all need to engage in knocking down our idols from time to time. It's important; we don't want them to get too big for their own good and lose what made them special to us in the first place. But talking to Jon Stewart was one of those moments where the rational me just flew out the window and fanboy irrational me took over. I was overwhelmed to be standing next to, and talking to, a man I'd revered for twenty years at that point. We didn't talk long, and we didn't talk about much, but it was a great moment for me nonetheless. And it involved a bathroom. Here's what happened. Schnipper's, the burger joint, required you to input a code from your receipt into the keypad outside the locked men's room door in order for you to gain access. I was siting near the bathrooms and I saw Stewart walk past me with his young son to use the men's room. Then I heard him tell his son he'd tossed his receipt so he didn't have the code to get in. Here was my chance! As he walked by again I said "Hey, I heard you just now--do you want my receipt for the code?" He smiled broadly and say "Aw, man! Thanks! Yeah, that would be great." He took it from me and headed back to the men's room. A few minutes later I had to, um, go, myself. I was pretty sure he was still in there too and I figured once he came out I could get in (since I didn't have my code anymore). I was waiting outside the door when it opened and out walked Stewart and his son. He saw me and flashed that big smile again and said "Hey, it's the guy with the code! Thanks, man! Here," and he held the door for me, "Just paying it forward!" We both laughed, I said thanks and actually patted him on the back as I walked past him. You know, like you would with your buddy. It was a genuinely nice moment. Throughout most of it, in my head I was telling myself "You're talking to Jon Stewart" over and over again because I couldn't believe it. But I didn't act like a fan even though I wanted to tell him how much his work had meant to me for so long. But I think just sharing a lighthearted moment was better, in the long run. And I got to interact with him while he was just out around town, being a dad (and his son was adorably cute), which has always made for a good story.

So, bye, Jon. It's been real. I hope you're enjoying a Schnipper's burger with your son a little more often now that you have some more time on your hands.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

She's just not that into you

A friend of mine recently blogged about things people say to you when you're a parent of twins. Things that, on the surface, seem innocuous enough. But when you the parent have to hear them repeated to you ad infinitum, well, then you have to control yourself from doing a little thinning of the herd if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

So to extrapolate on that thought (thanks for the inspiration, Jaime!), I just wanted to write a quick word or three hundred about one my wife and I hear with alarming frequency lately. The old "Oh, she's unsure about me! She's not too happy with me, is she? What did I do?" We've heard this one a lot recently when one of our seven-month twins makes one of the following faces: neutral face that doesn't display any signs of positive or negative emotions, or just a slight frown, or the full-on-pouty-lipped-about-to-burst-into-tears-any-minute face. More often than not lately it's been our daughter who elicits this response from strangers* (and let it be known here, I'm really talking about strangers, not friends or family; that's part of what makes this whole thing worth exploring, to me). So far, she seems a little bit more leery of strangers than our son, who is usually happy to flash a smile at just about anyone. But he has his moments too, trust me. Still, I've been feeling for my daughter when people say things like this. Maybe it's because  when she's with us, especially at home, she's a ball of energy and fun, laughing and playing and beaming with a wide grin every time we pick her up or talk to her or just look at her, even. It just seems like she's a little shy in public at times. Sometimes.  Not always.

So what?? I think part of why I internalize this for her is that I was a shy kid. I only learned what it was like to live as an introvert--how looked down on it is to even be an introvert in this society--as I got older. But I distinctly remember being made to feel bad about being shy as a kid. I remember adults saying things to my parents like "Oh, he's shy, isn't he?" in hushed tones as if it was a bad thing. It's not, I'm here to tell you that it's really not. As an adult I really transitioned into being more an ambivert: someone with qualities of both extroversion and introversion. But even now I have to occasionally face people's lack of knowledge about what it's like to be an introvert--that it doesn't mean I don't like you because I'd rather be drawing right now, or it doesn't mean I'm not interested in your story because I'd rather be taking in some much-needed quiet time at this moment. But when I was ten years old, I didn't have any confidence to express things like this to people; I just knew I preferred being quiet and was often too scared to speak up to adults or even certain kids my own age. It didn't hinder me much, though. I made good friends and I grew out of my shell with time, as I found other like-minded people who helped pull out the best in me.

Clearly, our daughter is too young for us to know if she'll be an introvert or an extrovert yet. But sometimes when strangers put their own feelings onto her by saying things like "She's not sure of me!" I want to speak up and say "Um, no, it's not really about you. It's about her and maybe she's trying to pass some gas right now or is contemplating chewing on mommy's dangling necklace or really maybe she's just concentrating extra hard on reading people's thoughts because she's hoping to be a world-class telepath like Jean Grey or Professor X, so, you know, thanks but move along now, please." It's really interesting to see how people--total strangers--put so much onto a baby! It goes to show you how involved we all are in our own heads and how we tend to see things through our own lens and can't break away from that to realize that a baby is almost certainly not creating any deep feelings about a stranger she's seeing for the first and last time for a total of maybe two minutes of her life. And then I'm struck by how similar that is to how people have reacted to my shyness or introversion over different stages of my life--when I was ten, or maybe thirteen, and then again in my twenties or thirties. So watching strangers' reactions to our kids has shown me just how early in life you have to face a lot of people's bullshit and dammit I'm proud of my daughter when she just stares at them and doesn't offer any quarter--it's like she's saying "Just for that comment, lady, you aren't getting a smile out of me now, no way." That's my girl.

*I don't even have the time right now to write about how a lot of this response being directed at my daughter is similar to how people often feel that women need to "smile for them" or "look happy" and how there are some major league messed up gender perceptions going on here. Eye opening stuff to see that starting so early in life too.

Friday, July 17, 2015

We are our influences

She's too "Precious," indeed.

There are few things I enjoy more than talking about the writers, artists, musicians, etc. that have influenced me in ways that have helped to shape who I've become. In fact, set me up in a coffee shop or a bar with good friends and no time limit, and I can wax on for a ridiculous amount of time on just this sort of stuff. I'm fortunate enough to have a partner and friends who also love doing this, which means I've done it a lot in my life. So—surprise!—I'll be doing it here in this space too. Probably often. So consider this part one of a multi-part series. And I'd love to hear your thoughts on my ramblings and/or if your influences dovetail with mine or if not what's influenced you.

So here we go with the first two entries in what I'll call my Personal Influence Hall of Fame. More to come later. And like my children, I love 'em all equally.

Probably the first band I remember loving, The Pretenders have been a musical constant for most of my life now. I discovered them like most kids in the early to mid 1980s through MTV and their video for "Brass in Pocket." And when I say I discovered them, I think it was really Chrissie Hynde that I discovered and whenever that video came on (which was a lot back in the days when, yes, we watched actual videos on MTV, and there were  relatively few of them on so you could be sure to catch the same ones often) I sat rapt, staring at the mysterious waitress singing to herself in a diner, and listened intently to a song whose lyrics oozed sexuality in a way my young mind could not possibly comprehend but dammit if she didn't get my attention. The guys in the video (her bandmates) were clearly idiots for not giving her the time of day and my god didn't they understand she was one-hundred times better than those women they were hanging out with in the diner I mean even I knew that and I wasn't even ten years old yet!

Uh, yeah, so I had what you might call a little crush on Chrissie. I'm pretty sure she was my first pop culture crush (or at least real-life, non-illustrated pop culture crush—I'm sure I'll write about Jean Grey here one day too). A crush that has held up for the last thirty-plus years, in fact. But it was really about the music and lyrics—her authorial voice was so strong and compelling. Her songs were mostly about how complicated it was to be an adult, so as I aged they became even more meaningful to me. Also as I started to appreciate music more I came to realize that while I loved this band's hits and deep cuts equally over the decades, it was really this initial iteration of the band that recorded their first two albums that blew my mind. I return to those first two records often, along with the equally strong third album. The first album is utterly perfect. Not a clunker in sight, all hits no filler: "Precious," "The Wait," "Mystery Achievement," etc. And as I started winding my path through musical genres in my teens and college years, absorbing them like a sponge, I realized that a lot of what I loved tied back to that first Pretenders album. The ringing guitar tones, the gorgeous melodies and catchy-as-hell song structures, and the utterly unique voice of the lead singer who could convey strength, weakness, joy, sorrow, tenderness, and acerbic wit—all in one line of a song! These were the hallmarks of my favorite bands and once I realized this it helped me to further define what most brought me happiness and joy when listening to music. And Hynde and the Pretenders really started it all for me.

I saw them with Elizabeth (also a fan) for the first and only time maybe five or six years ago at a small theater. It was around that time that I realized Hynde was old enough to be my mother, and amazingly always had been! Crazy how aging works, huh? As a kid you think of famous people as ageless, or timeless. I was a little worried, that as an aging band with several new members, they might not do justice to all of the years I'd spent living with their music and words in my head, but as they started to play the first song of the night it was obvious I had nothing to fear. Hynde must have been close to sixty years old at this point and she commanded the stage with absolute authority, just like she had in all of those live videos from their early years that I'd been watching for decades. I guess some crushes are built to last.

Sadly, I never found out what diner she worked at or else I'd have made myself a regular there.

Michael Chabon had written two previous novels before The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but neither he nor those books had made my radar. Kavalier and Clay was getting major accolades when it was published in 2000 and eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001. I read it sometime in 2000. Or more accurately, I devoured it sometime in 2000. It's been my favorite novel ever since. I also caught up on his previous novels and have read practically every damn word the man has written in the fifteen years since, from novels to short stories to essay collections to online only essays, etc. I've tried explaining how his work has influenced me before, and I think I've failed at it pretty miserably. But here goes, once more with feeling.

My Chabon shelf runneth over

Unlike the title of this blog, Chabon's words never seem out of place. They fit together in the most organic of ways to create an emotional resonance in me that few, if any, authors ever have. It doesn't hurt that some of his favorite interests to write about align perfectly with my own: how music can not only soundtrack your life but burrow into your heart and head in a way few other art forms can; the relationships between men, be they friends, lovers, or somewhere in between, have never been as richly explored by any other writer I've ever read; and finding value in works of "low" culture like comics and pulp and science fiction novels by noting that they are just as much worthy of critical analysis as the most respected texts in the "cannon." Kavalier and Clay really did a lot to bring these "low" culture bottom-dwellers like comics and science fiction/fantasy stories to a place of more importance in the greater culture, a place they seem to reside in (occasionally at least, and definitely more often than they had previously) with increasing frequency today (for good or ill). Chabon is of a generation (Gen X) that decided that everything was for the taking when it came to culture—whereas members of previous generations of the twentieth century had been taught to feel ashamed to read comics or lurid pulp novels out in the open, let alone name-check them as influences for god's sake, Chabon and his contemporaries like Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Lethem praised these hidden gems and talked in essays and interviews about how works of genre fiction influenced them as much as works of classic literature. For me, as a younger member of Chabon's generation, I took this to heart. It clearly influenced me, and my friends, in  how we participated in popular culture. We proudly wear our Marvel Comics pins on our messenger bags while carrying in said bags copies of a science-fiction graphic novel alongside a seminal work of feminist essays. There is no difference in our minds. Chabon helped codify that for me.

And now I'm realizing I just spilled 500 words and barely discussed how gorgeous his sentences are and, and, and...I'll have to return to him another day here.

Thursday, July 16, 2015


If I'm being honest, I've been a jerk plenty of times in my life. Who hasn't? Lately I've felt like more of a jerk than I had in a long time. I'm not sure anyone noticed my jerkiness, but if you did, well, it wasn't personal. Well, it was personal to me. The past several weeks were tough and I reacted to the stress by not reacting very well to the stress. Which is a valid reaction to stress. It's the most common reaction to stress, honestly. Still, it means there were times I felt like a jerk for being moody or short with people, but I was trying to work it out and just get through the damn thing and sometimes that took all the energy I had.

So what's the damn thing? My infant son had to have a couple of standard tests run over the last few weeks just to rule out something that, if it had been found on one of these tests, would have been really fucking scary. I'll cut to the great news - it was not found. Test results were totally normal. And no further tests are necessary, thank you very much. He's doing beautifully. He's a happy, healthy, smiling, laughing, rolling, scooting, crawling little 6+ month old baby. And so is his twin sister. So they're awesome. But...because a doctor ordered a test as a matter of protocol, we had to agonize over the results for a week. Because, you see, the doctor didn't know that the lab only ran this test one day a week. And I delivered the sample to the lab on that day, but apparently too late in the day for the test to be run. So we had to wait a week for them to run the test. Then once they did the test, both the lab and the doctor decided it was best to run another, very similar test, because the first test is really done for adults and this second test is much appropriate for an infant. So, why did we even bother with that first test? Good question. I have no answer. The lab seemed to insinuate the doc shouldn't have ordered it but instead should have only ordered the second test. The doc didn't give us any explanation and blithely moved on with her day. And we waited one more agonizing week to put this behind us.

The short version of all of this is that in the end it's all good. My boy's fine. And in our hearts and minds, his mother and I knew he was fine. He smiles at us all the damn time. He's such a happy baby it makes my heart burst just to look into his eyes and see the joy he's bringing into this world. So that, and mostly that, got us through the torturous weeks of waiting for test results. But during that waiting, I realized that I had fallen into that abyss again, that cycle of anxiety that rolls over me (and most people, for god's sake) when faced with really stressful situations. So I spent the better part of the past few weeks feeling uneasy, on edge, and just exhausted from worry. We still had some great times, don't get me wrong. Every night is a party in our house with the Wonder Twins! We can't help but be happy just from looking at those two gorgeous smiles every day and night. All of my awesome friends sent me encouraging texts or invited us over to hang or met me for lunch so I could vent. That helped more than any of you will ever  know. Thank you. Our families visited and brought positive vibes with them. But at certain points every day, I'd remember that this was my son's health, and I'd let the waves carrying stress and anxiety just roll over me again. Sometimes it's too hard to swim away, you know?

The wave metaphor popped into my head a week or so ago during all of this and I realized I probably got it from the Lou Reed song Waves of Fear, which used to terrify me when I first discovered it years ago during my deep dive into The Acerbic One's back catalog. It's brutal. I've never heard a panic attack described in such visceral detail in song lyrics before or sense. It's uncompromising and truthful in a way most songs aren't. I used to cringe at his depiction of anxiety's devastating impact. Then when things in my life went sideways about 4-5 years ago, and it seemed like every month brought a new challenge that was seemingly more insurmountable than the last, and this pattern continued unabated for a few years, well, then the song took on a new meaning for me. It didn't scare me at all anymore. It comforted me, in a way I never imagined it could. I was never as low as Reed was when he wrote that song (at least, I like to think I wasn't), but I could relate in very real and specific ways to not being able to carry on. Or at least not thinking I could. Because I did. Every minute of every day, somehow.

My favorite writer, Michael Chabon, has an essay about a particularly difficult period of time in his and his family's life. Everything that could go wrong went wrong for them, it seemed. One health crisis after another. I first read this essay last year, while Elizabeth was pregnant and we'd cleared the hurdles of the past several years and were living in a new golden age, feeling renewed and excited to be past all that and now focusing on bringing new lives into the world. So in reading the essay at that time, I saw so many parallels with my own recent past, and I was struck by how Chabon came to the conclusion that, basically, sometimes life just dumps one disaster after another on you and that's just the way it is. We seem conditioned to believe that it shouldn't be that way. That life is really about sunshine and roses and every now and then a thorn crops up and cuts you. But what if life isn't about just dealing with the bad times so you can move on to the good ones, but instead is about dealing with the bad times while the good ones are happening at the same time? Because the bad times don't go away as neatly and cleanly as we'd like them to. They come back whenever they feel like it. So Chabon was basically saying we have to learn to stop putting life on hold during those bad times because then we're missing out on some good times when we do that. A sentiment that I'll continue to try to live by. And fail every now and then, of course. But not always.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Pleased to meet me

I've been contemplating (threatening?) to do this for a long time. I have too many feelings, opinions, thoughts, passions, and grievances not to vent them somewhere besides at my loving, patient wife and incredibly caring friends. Plus, writing has always been a tonic for my soul, right up there with drawing. Similar to the solitary pursuit of sitting with a sketch pad and some pencils to form something on paper to resemble as best I can what I see in my mind, writing also allows for that absolutely necessary act of purging what's inside me, to get it out on paper (or on screen in the modern age) so that I can keep things in proper balance. I've been asked what it's like to have to draw, to need to put down on paper what is itching to get out of my head. "It's necessary," I say. When I do that I'm welcoming the calm into my life. Who doesn't want or need that, right? Writing provides a similar sense of calm in my life. And while I enjoy offering up my opinions on Facebook now and then, I really needed a place for long form writing. It's been far too long since I've done this.

So, here I am. I'm not sure how often I'll post but I'll do my best. I don't have a plan, or a theme for this, besides "write what I need to say, what needs to spill out of my head" and I'm going to let the words fall out and try to make sense of it all later. I might review a book I just read or talk about a current event or just explore why I felt so [insert emotion here] that particular day. I'm a fairly new father (to twins!) so I suppose it's insane of me to think this is a good time to try to start blogging. When will I have time between all of the diaper changing and dodging spit up?? Well, maybe that's actually what makes it the perfect time for me to start.

Oh. And I apologize in advance for typos. And for probably geeking out over things like the upcoming Star Wars movie or waxing nostalgic for some band I loved back in 1995. Because all of those things are bound to happen on this blog. Often.